More than a century ago, the forests surrounding first-magnitude Rainbow Springs were a beehive of activity as miners dug pits in the limestone to find nuggets that made Dunnellon a boomtown—phosphate. This area was the first place where phosphate was commercially mined in Florida. The deep pits and spoil piles left behind were recovered by the forest and, near the spring, intentionally planted with thousands of azaleas and camellias during the 1930s. The Sandhill Trail leads hikers into rolling terrain punctuated with ravines created by mining and restored by nature, and offers a new perspective on the Rainbow River.
Length: 2.1 mile perimeter loop with shorter options
Lat-Long: 29.100980, -82.433454
Fees / Permits: $2 per person state park fee
Difficulty: low to moderate
Bug factor: low to moderate
Restroom: in the park
Rainbow Springs State Park is open 8 AM to dusk daily. There’s a $2 per person fee to enter the park. To get to the trailhead, it’s a walk in the park … literally. Use any of the trails swinging to the left -- either along the water’s edge, at the base of the waterfalls, or up and over the bluffs – to head to the old rodeo grounds and butterfly garden at the far end of the park. Enter the butterfly garden and turn right. You’ll reach the trailhead right after you exit the butterfly garden.
From I-75, take exit 352, Ocala / Dunnellon, and drive west on SR 40 for 17 miles to US 41. Turn left; the park entrance will be on your left within a mile.
Starting at the “Nature Trail” trailhead with a large kiosk and map of the trail, the broad and well-trodden Sandhills Trail leads you through the pines to the edge of a man-made ravine reclaimed by the forest. Emerging into an open meadow that appears to have been used to graze cattle once upon a time, it follows the edge of the meadow, sticking to the shade beneath the trees.
At a well-marked trail intersection, three blaze colors are shown on the post: yellow, white, and blue. To sneak your peek at the Rainbow River, head downhill along the blue blazes on a spur trail that reaches a spot with a bench at the river. The trail extends a little ways downriver through the cypresses for another glimpse. Returning along the blue trail, you see a white-blazed trail off to the right. That’s the perimeter trail, which gives you a 2.1-mile loop. It’s a beautiful option in the fall, when the sandhill wildflowers are in bloom. Most times of year, however, you’ll want to follow the yellow blazes for a more interesting hike. Keep heading up the hill.
The yellow blazes follow a forest road briefly and then take off into the forest on the right, leading past a cistern carved into the limestone, perhaps once the site of a homestead. As you head deeper into the forest, the trail undulates up and over mounds and the forest grows on these mounds as well—leftover diggings from the phosphate pits. You soon encounter the extremely deep pits, each with a fence along the edge, where the forest has filled in. Slash and loblolly pines reach for the sky, as tall above the pits as they are below.
The yellow blazes once again intersect with the white blazes. Turn left and follow them across the meadow, where a bench sits in the shade of a large cedar tree. Plum trees show their bright white blooms in February. Entering a stand of regularly-spaced planted pines, the trail crosses a park road and returns you to the butterfly garden, completing a 2-mile circuit.